Thursday, September 19, 2013

Classics: The Life Lessons of Don Vito Corleone By Lauren Ennis

Even the cottonball cheeks don't diminish his badassery
The Godfather trilogy is often considered an American version of the Shakespearean tragedy. Despite the story’s pulp fiction roots, the Corleone family saga is one rife with love, loss, corruption, ambition, and loyalty. The overarching theme of this sprawling multigenerational tale is the importance of family. In keeping with this theme, it is the example of family patriarch Don Vito Corleone that influences his children’s actions both within and outside of the family. Despite his distinctive role as the head of a mafia family, many of the Don’s lessons to his children prove to be surprisingly universal. Through the film’s enduring popularity, many of these life lessons have entered the realm of popular culture and public consciousness. And now, without further delay, here are three of the most effective and timeless lessons from everyone’s favorite Godfather whom no one can refuse (spoilers warning, read at your own risk):

1.     Vengeance is a hollow reward: In the first film’s opening scene, the local undertaker, Bonasera, begs the Don to avenge his daughter’s attempted rape and brutal beating. Bonasera insists that the perpetrators must be killed if justice is to be served. Don Corleone refuses to have the men killed, observing that Bonsera wants revenge and not justice. He reminds Bonasera that his daughter is still alive and as a result, killing her attackers would go beyond the call of justice. He then agrees to punish the men but not kill them, thus providing justice without vengeance. After the Don is shot in retaliation for refusing to invest in a rival family’s drug operation, his children struggle to agree on what course of action the family should take. As weak-willed Fredo is sent to fill a menial job in Las Vegas and estranged son Michael attempts to remain on the fringes of the family business, the decision is left to hot tempered Sonny and adopted son Tom. Sonny immediately gives in to his emotions and demands vengeance, while Tom advocates for a more level headed approach that will maintain peace between the city’s ruling mafia families. Although Sonny’s reaction seems the most natural given the circumstances, it is Tom’s consistent refrain that “this isn’t personal” that echoes the Don’s own sentiments. Sonny’s retaliation goes on to start a city wide mafia war that results in massive losses on all sides; including his own life. Following Sonny’s murder, Don Corleone realizes that seeking vengeance will only lead to more senseless bloodshed and instead opts for a truce between the Five Families.   During the conference between the Five Families, one of the rival Dons demands a guarantee that the Corleone family will not seek revenge. Don Corleone then agrees to this demand saying, “You talk about vengeance. Is vengeance going to bring your son back to you? Or my boy to me?”. This response reminds the conference members that there would be no point in any of them seeking further vengeance, as revenge would not change the past or erase the losses that they have suffered.

The lonesome Don
2.     Never forget where you came from: At the start of the first film, Don Corleone is taking requests for favors from various members of his community. While it is stated that according to tradition the Don cannot refuse a request made on his daughter’s wedding day, the fact that he maintains this tradition demonstrates his desire to remain in touch with his roots. The Don is certainly powerful enough and feared enough to maintain control of his territory without resorting to personal kindnesses. Instead of ruling his empire strictly through fear, however, he earns the respect and gratitude of  his community by remaining in touch with their needs and doing his best to fulfill those needs. It is this policy of earning rather than demanding the respect of those loyal to him that allowed the Don to begin his ascent as the head his own Family and retain this position into his old age. When Michael takes his place as head of the family following his father’s death, it is his inability to replicate his father’s human connection that ultimately proves to be his undoing. Throughout the second film, Michael’s growing isolation is juxtaposed with his father’s active role in his family and community. For example, while Michael cannot take the time to work on his failing marriage, Vito is repeatedly shown interacting with his wife and children. Because Vito experienced a humble life before his eventual rise to power, he is able to appreciate the struggles of those around him and makes a point to remember where he came from. As the son of a Don, however, Michael has only known a life of privilege and power, and cannot comprehend any other life. As a result, Michael treats those around him with indifference and regards them as pawns in his quest for power. It is this disregard for those around him that leads to his betrayal by several family members and sets him on the path to a life of solitude. By refusing to follow his father’s example, Michael seals his own fate and condemns himself to a life that cannot be shared or enjoyed.

3.      There is nothing more important than family: Over the course of the turbulent decades in which the trilogy takes place one thing remains certain; the importance of family. In one of Part I’s early scenes, the Don is asked to assist his godson, Johnny Fontaine with his floundering singing career. After he addresses the immediate problem of Johnny’s career, he asks if Johnny has been spending time with his family. Although Johnny seems to dismiss his godfather’s inquiry as a casual question, Don Corleone reminds him that “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”. In flashbacks to the Don’s early life in Part II, it is revealed that he was driven to pursue the life of a Mafioso not to obtain material wealth or power, but in order to defend his family. During his childhood in Sicily, young Vito suffers the loss of both his father and brother in a local mafia war before witnessing his mother’s murder at the hands of the local Don. After suffering the loss of his family, he vows to protect those closest to him. When he starts his own family in New York, he fulfills the promise he made to himself years earlier by refusing to let his family suffer at the hands of the local mob boss, Fannucci. After Fannucci demands that Vito pay a tribute that his struggling family cannot afford, Vito becomes determined to eliminate Fannucci and the threat that he poses to his family. When he has reached old age in Part I, he reveals to Michael that his goal as  Don was to provide a better life for his children in which they would not be forced to answer to local bosses and rely upon violence to survive.   This revelation reveals Don Corleoene's unique perspective on family and the American Dream and elevates him from typical mob boss to the complex cinema icon who has continued to captivate audiences for over forty years.
One big mafia family

1 comment:

  1. Freaking Heart This Review! Well Done. You know one thing I always got form "The Godfather Trilogy" (actually mostly from the Second One) was the message of "The American Dream is Dead". What I mean by that is, you have Young Vito who fleas Sicily and comes America in search of a better life, only to find out that he is not welcomed by many people in America. That life is not easier, and in fact, it's actually not all that different from his life back in Italy. He tries to go straight and have a legitimate and honest, but is constantly denied this simplest of desires, and turns to a life of crime to combat those who stand in his way to better not only his life, but the life of his family as well.